Well before Einstein discovered that time stretches and contracts, novelists had already penned the malleability of time in exquisite detail. Virginia Woolf remarked how the flow of time was intimately linked to the flow of consciousness, how solitude weighed down the passage of time and how rapture, on the contrary, accelerated it.
Similarly, Albert Camus and many other prominent writers documented the enriching quality of nature well before science did. His anecdotes, which are essentially preachings on the enlightening effects of swimming in cold ponds and solitary walks through the pleasant gardens of Paris, illustrate how, like Virginia Woolf and many such visionary writers, his insights are timeless.
Camus deplored walking past the beige pillars that held his hometown of Algiers’ monuments. He despaired how the warm, dull walls that surrounded the city formed a barrier against contemplative thinking as he walked past them. Now, finally, science has caught up to corroborate his insights and demonstrate that his predilections weren’t just personally, but also scientifically beneficial. Nature really does heal.
Lately, a plethora of studies have illustrated how our mechanical lives have taken a toll on our physiological and mental health. These studies have shown that work-related stress isn’t just another excuse retorted by fragile millennials after being unable to surmount another hurdle. The night shifts and excessive hours of work, rituals that previous generations prided themselves on, can have devastating effects, fatal in some cases.
Consider a study conducted in 2015, which revealed that more than 120,000 deaths and 5%-8% of annual healthcare costs are associated with work-related stress. The Japanese coined a word to describe the fatal consequences of excessive work – karoshi. Back in the 1990s, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined another term to describe a new movement, a medical therapy that would alleviate this mounting stress. They called it Shinrin yoku or, forest bathing.
Originating in Japan, the therapy does not force pills down your throat but instead asks you to simply luxuriate in a forest. It is the practice of taking short, leisurely visits to your nearby forest. Yes, that’s it, absolutely free of cost. The activity requires you to take a break from vociferating at missed cabs and stammering computers and, in an anthropological sense, return to our roots. It demands that one fully surrender to nature, and while there, to meditate on the songs of birds and rustling trees.
Of course, to a skeptic, forest bathing, like gaudy self-help books, only incites incredulity. A website dedicated to edifying people about its benefits enumerates several pseudoscientific health benefits, such as an increased “flow of energy”, “life force” or an “increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species”. But the most desirable, and in the case of self-help books – marketable – promise is happiness. However, does forest bathing have real, quantifiable medical benefits?
The benefits of forest bathing
Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby remarks how she deplores the lack of privacy in a small party; instead, she delights in grand parties where people can sidle to remote tables and comfort privately in their solitude. An urban city, also like a lavish party, is filled with people. Yet, ironically, the brick houses stacked one upon another make us feel both connected and lonesome at the same time.
Forest bathing asks one to escape this maze and meander in the wild, to swap the monotony of our routines for the diversity of nature. And why not, when forest bathing is known to reduce heart rate, blood pressure and the production of stress hormones.
One study showed that people who walked through a forest compared to people who walked through a city illustrated a decrease in blood pressure and less production of stress hormones, even though both walks demanded an equal amount of physical exertion. On average, the forest walkers, aged between 36-77, displayed a reduction in systolic blood pressure after just 4 hours of wandering.
Another blood pressure pacifier is a chemical released by trees. Trees release a compound in the surrounding air known as phytoncides. Inhaling these compounds is highly beneficial, as they deplete the concentration of stress hormones in both genders. Furthermore, they also encourage the activity of white blood cells, which are popularly known as “natural killer” cells.
However, these benefits are not just exclusively redeemed by embracing the woods. Forest bathing experts assure that the benefits can be enjoyed by people as long as they are going outside and finding themselves in nature. The objective is to indulge in a natural environment, whether it is foraging in the woods, visiting a beach or trudging through a desert.
However, a few studies have gone so far as to conclude that one doesn’t necessarily have to get his feet dirty; even looking at nature helps! One fascinating study found that the average concentration of salivary cortisol — a notorious stress hormone – in people who gazed at forest scenery for 20 minutes was 13.4% lower than that of people staring at a naked wall.
The consolation of nature is also known to improve sleep, immunity and creativity. Many breakthroughs and discoveries of plots whether of fiction or of the Universe, can be traced to long, brooding walks in gardens or on beaches. Heisenberg is known to have realized the whimsical behavior of sub-atomic particles and come up with his absurd principle while strolling for hours in a park. Nature seems to be the perfect environment to step away, ruminate and accomplish coherence. That, to me, is the ideal prescription for happiness.
- Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs
- National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)